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MPs voice concern over ‘incomplete’ university reforms

Reforms to the English higher education system may need to be postponed if the government is unable to introduce the proposed changes in a single package, MPs have warned.

A report from the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee points out that key elements of the system due to be introduced in the 2012-13 academic year are still incomplete.

There are on-going consultation exercises on several aspects of the reforms, including early repayment penalties for loans, the future of student number controls, loans for students studying at alternative providers, “off quota” students and a new regulatory framework for new and alternative providers.

In addition, the government has not worked out what it wants to see in the Key Information Sets, the standardised information intended to help prospective undergraduates make informed decisions about their degree choice.

Nor have changes been made at the Higher Education Funding Council or the Office for Fair Access to reflect their new responsibilities.

“We are concerned to ensure that these consultations will deliver the necessary coherent package of reforms to that timetable. It is vital that a new fee regime does not start without key aspects of the wider reform package in place,” the report states.

“We therefore urge the Government to ensure that its delivery programme has sufficient flexibility to accommodate a later implementation to deliver its reforms. To do so would be seen as a strength, both for Government and for the sector it seeks to reform.”

The report expresses concern that the policies proposed for extending participation in higher education may produce disappointing results. So they suggest introducing an equivalent to the Pupil Premium paid to schools when enrolling children from low income families.

Their report also suggests that “focusing financial support on providing money for living costs to students while they are studying would be a more effective means of support than fee-waivers and would be more consistent with the message that students should not be dissuaded from applying to university because of the cost.”

Universities and education minister David Willetts welcomed the committee’s support for the general principle underlying the government plans. He believed that the reforms would not detract from the government’s plans for widening participation in higher education.

“No student should be put off from going to university because they don’t know the facts about our student finance reforms,” said a statement from Willetts. “We have a team of recent graduates touring schools and colleges across the country to help students and parents understand the changes to student finance.

“We have to get on with ending the present system of setting quotas of places at each university because it lets students down,” he added.

Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ universities think tank and vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, agreed with the MPs that poor communication and last-minute policy changes have caused problems for universities in preparing for the new system.

He also believed it would have made sense for the government to introduce its plans for removing controls on student numbers as a separate measure to the fees reforms.

“This has created further confusion and caused universities to change fee levels after the admissions year has started as they can try to recover student numbers which ministers have arbitrarily removed,” he said.

Meanwhile, union leaders have drawn attention to the concerns expressed in the MPs’ report over the government’s intention to expand the role of for-profit institutions in the university system.

The Universities and College Union general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “We are not alone in our concerns about for-profit education providers having access to more of taxpayers’ money without facing the same regulations as our public universities.

“A cursory glance across the pond to America details the extent of the problems we may face without proper regulation of those seeking to make a fast buck out of our education system.”